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Irish To Experiment Saturday At USF

The Big East Conference isn’t going to stop and wait for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team to figure things out. The reality for the Fighting Irish is that their most experienced player is out for the foreseeable future, and it’s up to head coach Mike Brey to formulate an effective Plan B.

The Irish and head coach Mike Brey head to South Florida Saturday trying to figure out ways to increase production without sixth-year senior Scott Martin (center).

A mid-season experiment begins Saturday with a trip to South Florida, when the Irish (15-4, 3-3), sans sixth-year guard Scott Martin, start over against the Bulls (10-8, 1-5). Big-picture goals, for now, have been reduced to 20-minute missions at a time.

“I haven’t said, ‘Well, we’re taking the regular-season title goal off the board,’” Brey said. “I don’t want to say that right now. I think I’m pretty realistic about this league and where you’re at and who you are and how you get [an NCAA] bid. I haven’t given them big picture … it’s been more of this capsule of ‘we need to reinvent ourselves a little bit this week before we play again.’

“I think [long-term aims is] a discussion you have to have probably in the next week — big picture. I’ve always given guys updates because I don’t want them to think all is lost getting a tournament bid. We are 6-4 against the top 100 in the RPI, we’re 3-2 against the top 50. We have six games left against the top 20 in the RPI, and we don’t have to go 6-0.”

A twice-surgically-repaired left knee is expected to sideline Martin, who was averaging 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game this season, for a minimum of two-three weeks. It’s possible that his lengthy but oft-interrupted career is over completely, with pain becoming too severe to manage.

Martin’s dwindling production doesn’t seem like a herculean task to replace, but his experience (96 starts) and leadership are two areas the Irish can’t patch quickly. And with other key players struggling offensively, anything Martin contributed will be tough to recoup elsewhere.

“In our [last] three losses, I think we’re averaging 57 points,” Brey said. “We need to score more. We talked about ball reversal in the last week, but I think we need to emphasize screening for each other more, not just ball screening. Those are things we did [in practice Tuesday], and we’re going to watch some film of practice with us over the next two days as we’re trying to find ways to get better looks offensively.”

Senior forward Jack Cooley has been the most consistent of Notre Dame’s starters, averaging 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Brey explained, however, Cooley’s effectiveness drops when the team’s perimeter shooting plummets, as has been the case over the last two weeks.

Notre Dame was shooting 51.4 percent (fourth nationally and tops in the Big East) from the field prior to a 12-game win streak ending against Connecticut on Jan. 12, which marked the beginning of its current slide. The Irish shot 61.8 percent from 3-point land in their wins over Seton Hall and Cincinnati before the skid, and were averaging 41.5 percent from behind the arc (best in the league). Over the last four contests, Notre Dame has shot 43.2 percent from the field and 27.7 percent from deep.

“I think [Cooley has] gotten his touches,” Brey said. “I think sometimes he’s tried to force some plays; he’s feeling we’re not scoring out [on the perimeter]. He hasn’t shot it well either. When we’ve been successful we’ve banged down some threes.

“I think Jack maybe puts a lot of pressure on himself, ‘I got to get us going,’ and maybe forces some plays in there. There’s a fine line with our offense between him establishing himself in the post and him coming out and ball screening. Is it a night he can score over the guys guarding him? Is it a night he needs to ball screen and roll into getting stuff. I think that’s something we’re always evaluating and analyzing. In our league there is a lot of length and bouncy guys — Jack’s not an above-the-rim guy — that can bother him in there. We’ve talked to him about shot faking a little bit more instead of just going up through guys all the time looking for the foul.”

Brey and the Irish are looking for anything to spark a turnaround.

“I think right now it’s been we’re kind of reinventing … we don’t have Scott Martin; he’s gone,” Brey added. Two bigs? Are we smaller? Austin Burgett? I still don’t have those answers. I think you’ll see a little bit of everything on Saturday.”

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